The Right Moment

The second Earl of Leicester sat in Parliament for 67 years without saying a word.

His son, the third earl, was silent for 32 years.

His grandson, the fourth earl, said nothing for 23 years.

His great-grandson, the fifth earl, Thomas William Edward Coke, kept his silence for 22 years, then in 1972 rose and said, “I hope we shall use safer chemicals in place of those which have devastated the countryside.”

“My record of silence is not all that remarkable because I know that my family have not been overtalkative in this house,” he said later.

Quiet Study
Image: Wikimedia Commons

When French-American philanthropist Stephen Girard founded Philadelphia’s Girard College in 1830, he explicitly excluded religion from the campus:

I enjoin and require that no ecclesiastic, missionary or minister of any sect whatsoever, shall ever hold or exercise any station or duty whatever in the said college; nor shall any such person ever be admitted for any purpose, or as a visitor, within the premises appropriated to the purposes of the said college.

“In making this restriction, I do not mean to cast any reflection upon any sect or person whatsoever,” he wrote, “but, as there is such a multitude of sects, and such a diversity of opinion amongst them, I desire to keep the tender minds of the orphans, who are to derive advantage from this bequest, free from the excitement which clashing doctrines and sectarian controversy are so apt to produce.”

Carving Verbs

A dinner host in the 17th century might have wished for a usage manual — a different term was used for carving each dish, and, according to Samuel Orchart Beeton, “for a person to use wrong terms in relation to carving was an unpardonable affront to etiquette.” One might:

  • allay a pheasant
  • barb a lobster
  • break a hare
  • chine a salmon
  • culpon a trout
  • disfigure a peacock
  • dismember a hen
  • display a quail
  • fin a chevin
  • fract a chicken
  • frush a chub
  • gobbet a trout
  • lift a swan
  • mince a plover
  • rear a goose
  • sauce a capon
  • scull a tench
  • side a haddock
  • splat a pike
  • splay a bream
  • spoil a hen
  • string a lamprey
  • tarne a crab
  • thigh a pigeon
  • thigh a woodcock
  • transon an eel
  • trench a sturgeon
  • tusk a barbel
  • unbrace a mallard
  • unjoint a bittern
  • unlace a coney
  • unlatch a curlew
  • wing a partridge

“Carving was a science that carried with it as much pedantry as the business of school-teaching does in the present day,” Beeton observed in 1875. By that time, happily, such lists were already considered “too long and too ridiculous to repeat.”

The Golden Key

A monk was standing at a convent gate,
With sanctimonious phiz, and shaven pate,
Promising, with solemn cant,
To all that listen’d to his rant,
A full and perfect absolution,
With half-a-dozen hallowed benedictions,
If they would give some contribution,
Some large donation supererogatory,
To ransom fifty murder’d christians,
And free their precious souls from purgatory:
When (he asserted) they would gain
A passport from the realms of pain,
And find a speedy passage to the skies.
A knight was riding by, and heard these lies;
He stopp’d his horse, “Salve,” the parson cried;
And “Benedicite” the youth replied.
“Most reverend father,” quoth the knight,
Who, it appears, was sharp and witty,
“These martyr’d christians’ wretched plight
Believe me, I sincerely pity:
Nay, more–their sufferings to relieve,
I will these fifty ducats give.”
This was no sooner said than done;
The priest pronounc’d his benison.
“Now, I presume,” the soldier said,
“The spirits of these christians dead
Have reach’d their final place of rest?”
“Most true,” replied the rev’rend friar,
“(Unless Saint Francis is a liar;)
And, to reward the pious action
Of this most christian benefaction,
You will, no doubt, eternally be blest.”
“Well, then,” exclaim’d the soldier-youth,
“If what you say indeed be truth,
And these same pieces that I’ve given,
Have snatch’d their souls from purgatory’s pains,
And bought them a snug place in heaven,
No further use for them remains.”
He said thus much to prove, at least,
He was as cunning as the priest:
Then put the ducats in his poke
And rode off, laughing at the joke.

— “C.J.D.,” in The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, 1824


“Certain rules to discover married couples in large societies or in public,” from The Meteor; or, General Censor, 1814:

  1. If you see a gentleman and lady disagree upon trifling occasions, or correcting each other in company, you may be assured they have tied the matrimonial noose.
  2. If you see a silent pair in a hackney or any other coach, lolling carelessly one at each window, without seeming to know they have a companion, the sign is infallible.
  3. If you see a lady drop her glove, and a gentleman by the side of her kindly telling her to pick it up, you need not hesitate in forming your opinion; or,
  4. If you see a lady presenting a gentleman with anything carelessly, her head inclined another way, and speaking to him with indifference; or,
  5. If you meet a couple in the fields, the gentleman twenty yards in advance of the lady, who perhaps is getting over a stile in difficulty, or picking her way through a muddy path; or,
  6. If you see a lady whose beauty and accomplishments attract the attention of every gentleman in the room but one, you can have no difficulty in determining their relationship to each other–the one is her husband.
  7. If you see a gentleman particularly courteous, obliging, and good-natured, relaxing into smiles, saying smart things, and toying with every pretty woman in the room excepting one, to whom he appears particularly reserved, cold, and formal, and is unreasonably cross–who that one is nobody can be at a loss to discover; or,
  8. If you see a young or an old couple jarring, checking, and thwarting each other, differing in opinion before the opinion is expressed; eternally anticipating and breaking the thread of each other’s discourse, yet using kind words, like honey-bubbles floating on vinegar, which soon are overwhelmed by the preponderance of the fluid; they are, to all intents, man and wife! it is impossible to be mistaken.

“The rules above quoted are laid down as infallible in just interpretation; they may be resorted to with confidence; they are upon unerring principles, and reduced from every day’s experience.”

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According to tradition, barristers wear black because they’re still in mourning for Queen Mary II, who died in 1694.

Or, properly speaking, they adopted black on Mary’s death at the wish of William III and have retained it as a convenient costume ever since.

Mary is most commonly cited; sometimes another Stuart queen is named. Sir Frederick Pollock, who served as Chief Baron of the Exchequer for more than 25 years, famously joked that the whole bar went into mourning in the time of Queen Anne (Mary’s younger sister) and never came out again.

He wrote, “I have always been told that formerly the Bar wore, in Court, coats, &c. of any colour under the gown, which also need not have been black; but that on the death of Queen Anne the Bar went into mourning, and since then every barrister has generally worn black.”

First Impressions

In 1984, grad student Deborah Linville asked students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to rate the perceived sexiness of 250 female names. Sexiest (on a scale of 1 to 7) were Christine (5.08), Candace (4.92), Cheryl (4.91), Melanie (4.91), Dawn (4.83), Heather (4.83), Jennifer (4.83), Marilyn (4.83), Michelle (4.83), and Susan (4.83). Least sexy were Ethel (1.00), Alma (1.08), Zelda (1.16), Florence (1.5), Mildred (1.5), Myrtle (1.5), Silvana (1.5), Edna (1.66), Eurolinda (1.66), and Elvira (1.69).

Then Linville asked another group of students to play boss and rate the job applications of eight equally qualified women — submitted under particularly sexy and unsexy names.

Men hired and promoted non-sexy applicants much more frequently than women did. Linville concluded that “there is a prejudice toward women applicants based on the degree of sexiness of their names,” perhaps because men particularly expect female managers to possess strengths, such as motivation and decisiveness, that they don’t associate with sexy-sounding names.

An Ennobling Pause

The following ‘True Copy of a Jury taken before Judge Doddridge, at the Assizes holden at Huntingdon A.D. 1619,’ may amuse our readers. The Judge had in the preceding circuit censured the Sheriff for impannelling men not qualified by rank for serving on the Grand Jury, and the Sheriff being a humourist, resolved to fit the Judge with sounds at least. On calling over the following names and pausing emphatically at the end of the christian, instead of the surname, his lordship began to think he had indeed a jury of quality.

The Judge, it is said, was highly pleased with this practical joke, and commended the Sheriff for his ingenuity. The descendants of some of these illustrious Jurors still reside in the County, and bear the same names; in particular, a Maximilian King we are informed still presides over Toseland.

The News Magazine, August 1864


John T—-, Schoolmaster.
May he be punished as often as he punished us,
He was a hard old shell.
He said the Lord’s Prayer every morning.
May the Lord forgive him as often as he forgave us.
That was never.
We his scholars rear this stone over his ashes
Though they are not worth it.
We are glad his reign is over.

— Massachusetts tombstone, quoted in John R. Kippax, Churchyard Literature, 1876

Lost and Found

It is a sad fact that dead babies figure largely in the contents of the railway Lost Property Offices. These are at once handed over to the police, and a formal inquest is held. Some little time ago, Mr. Groom tells me, a live child was found in a small box on the departure platform, close to the eight o’clock Scotch train. The little one was cosily packed in wadding, and was provided with a feeding-bottle. A few holes had been drilled in the box–which, by the way, was covered with wallpaper, and was addressed to a home in Kilburn. The authorities of this home, however, refused to take in the child, as no money had been sent with it. So the poor, lost property infant was handed over to the police, who, in turn, passed it on to the workhouse, where it was christened ‘Willie Euston,’ and lived for four years. I succeeded in obtaining a photograph of the finding of this child, and the incident is shown in the accompanying illustration. The official on the right gave his own Christian name to the poor little waif.

— William G. FitzGerald, “The Lost Property Office,” Strand, December 1895